Critiquing without cultivating a critical spirit

Americans generally like to spout their opinions. We’re not shy about the teams we cheer for, the brands we love or the states we hail from. I’m reminded off-hand of San Francisco’s mayor, Gavin Newsom, haughtily exclaiming “As California goes, so goes the nation,” last week.

Speaking about the arts is different than touting your favorite football team though. With a variety of styles and innumerable personal aesthetics in the visual world, artistic critique is more complex (it seems to me) than being high on your home state, something that probably owes more to our roots.

Over Easter dinner we talked briefly with new friends about visually inclined people’s tendency to critique the things and environments around them. The question was, in essence, How do we as artists, designers, architects offer constructive criticism without coming across in an oppressive or negative manner?

As an art and architecture student I learned to take criticism. Architecture projects were judged by local and visiting professors. Art studios were usually classroom affairs, where all of the students were expected to contribute to the discussion. There are a few keys to gracefully receiving other people’s opinions about your own work, or your own home decor, or fashion sense, et cetera. Two are most important. First of all, don’t take things personally (as much as this is possible, which varies for different personalities). Secondly, try and learn to discern when people are giving constructive criticism and when they are speaking out of their own aesthetic. In other words, as an artist we need to be able to take the best advice with us and know what to leave behind.

As an artist and person interested in all things visual, I’m also practiced in giving criticism. Often this happens unintentionally, and some of the time it’s solicited. Being so innately involved with the visual environment I — and others like me — are predisposed to making observations other people are less likely to make. A lot of these observations I keep to myself, but not all of them. This is where tact comes in. If I’m with friends or among other artistic types I will be less reserved, naturally. If I’m with people I don’t know or people I know who might misunderstand my noble intentions, I’m more likely to keep my trap shut. Hopefully my non-verbal language is tactful as well. I’m no good at all with putting on airs. Even if I’m not saying anything, I fear my body language or countenance give away my lack of interest or distaste. Although I don’t recall anyone ever actually telling me this.

Then how do we speak tactfully about the arts? The following is a list I devised of my own experiences on how to be a good critiquer:

    * Be aware of when you’re reacting to an artwork through the lens of your own personal aesthetic. This is most if not all of the time. There is nothing wrong with this, but it can cause you to say things that don’t benefit the broader discussion.

    * Focus on formal elements such as line, color, and composition, but don’t ignore conceptual elements. Ask questions about the artist’s concept, their inspiration. This can shed an entirely new light on a painting or sculpture. Some of Frida Khalo’s work comes across as more than a little macabre if you don’t know about her background, as an example.

    * Comment on both successful and problematic areas of a piece. Look for the successes first.

    * Think of “constructive” criticism as much as possible. Give suggestions based on proven principles. Don’t just say “I don’t like this color.” Say instead, “That color would be more appealing or dynamic if . . . “

These principles, I think, will help a person avoid becoming critical about most things most of the time almost always in a negative way. I’ve known a few people like this, and I just can’t imagine life is enjoyable for them on the whole — and certainly not for the people around them. Please feel free to add to my list or shuffle it around in the comments if I’ve left something out. I probably have.

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About pcNielsen
Paul Nielsen founded The Aesthetic Elevator late in 2005. He owns a piece of paper, located somewhere in his house (not on the wall), stating that he earned a B.F.A. from the University of Nebraska around about 2001. While there, he studied studied architecture, graphic design and ceramics, graduating with a degree in studio art. Paul presently serves as communications manager for a small non-profit doing their print design and marketing. He spends as much time sculpting in his studio as possible — which is not nearly enough. Visit his website at pcNielsen.com.

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